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II. Case Study: The Closure of Orchid Orphanage

The violent closure of the Orchid Orphanage in Henan exemplifies many of the problems discussed in this report:

  • the absence in China of the kind of vibrant, multifaceted NGO sector urgently needed to assist and effectively mobilize communities devastated by the AIDS epidemic,
  • the failure of some authorities to work with AIDS NGOs that do exist,
  • obstacles to the registration of new groups,
  • the excessive use of force by rural police and officials against those who protest or otherwise challenge government policies, and
  • discriminatory government treatment of people with HIV/AIDS.

In 2003, AIDS activist Li Dan established a small non-profit orphanage in an abandoned temple building in Shangqiu city. He named the school “Eastern Treasure” [dongzhen东珍], which Li Dan said referred to the children; the orphanage was known as the Orchid Orphanage in English. At the time of its closure, the Orchid housed twenty-two children from Henan’s Shuangmiao village between the ages of seven and fourteen, including both orphans and children whose HIV-positive parents were too unwell to care for them.2 The school was staffed with four paid teachers and several dozen young volunteers.

Li Dan, himself a member of the Communist Party, tried to register the school formally in October 2003, but ran into a series of difficulties with local officials, some of whom told Li Dan they did not want the facility in the town because it hurt the region’s image and economy.3 At one stage, officials urged Li Dan to turn funds he had raised for the school over to the government and allow them to run it.4 Later, officials demanded he pay a registration fee of 1 million yuan [about U.S. $120,000]; when Li Dan found donors willing to come to Shuangmiao village to pay the fee, police forcibly closed the school, and tried to persuade the donors to donate their money to the local education bureau instead.5  

Like many other would-be NGOs, Li Dan eventually succeeded in registering the school as a commercial enterprise instead of as an NGO. But conflicts with local officials continued, culminating in the school’s closure by force in July 2004.6

On July 9, 2004, local officials called orphanage staff and told them that the government was closing the orphanage immediately, and would forcibly remove the children to a government facility on that same day.7 After some negotiation, staff of the orphanage reached an understanding with local officials that they would leave on the following day. But later that same evening, police and officials attempted to forcibly close the orphanage. An eyewitness reported to Human Rights Watch what happened:

At about nine o’clock in the evening, the government sent a lot of people to surround the building. There were more than a hundred people from the government around the building, most of them…cops. The officials were from the government of the city of Shangqiu and the government of the town of Zhecheng…All the people from the government were divided into more than twenty teams.8

Without any [discussion with] the parents…the government said to the children… “Your parents are waiting for you in the cars.” They also promised the children, “If you go with us, you can live in [a] hotel and go to school to [continue] learning.” Refused by the children, they [attempted] to force the children into the cars. [Staff] were forbidden to speak and leave the room.

The children felt very scared and broke down and wept. Badly shaken, one of the children fell into a faint. One volunteer, trying to protect the children, was pulled into a car by some insolent [government] people….

The children that were not taken to the cars were very frighten[ed] and ran to the second floor. More than ten officials, coming into the yard, shouted, “There are some children upstairs. Let’s take them away.” Then a lot of officials rushed onto the second floor. Then the sound of the children’s crying, and the officials’ shouting came from the second floor.9

Family members of the children, hearing what was happening, rushed to the school and began threatening officials and police officers, who withdrew, reportedly fearing HIV infection.10 That evening, fearing a worse conflict the following day, Orchid staff closed the orphanage and sent the children to stay with relatives in their home village.

As discussed in more detail in this report, fallout continued after the closure of the orphanage. In the wake of the closure, several orphanage staff prepared to raise the issue with national-level ministries and Chinese media. Three were detained for a month, during which time those who were HIV-positive were refused access to their previous course of antiretroviral medications and suffered a decline in health. After the three orphanage staff were released, Li Dan and several other AIDS activists who had raised concerns about these detentions were detained in turn, and report that later they were beaten by thugs who warned them to stop making trouble.

[2] Tan Ee Lyn, “China shuts school for AIDS orphans – activist,” Reuters, July 12, 2004.

[3] Philip P. Pan, “China’s orphans feel brunt of power,” Washington Post, September 14, 2004.

[4] Pan, “China’s orphans feel brunt of power.”

[5] Tan, “China shuts school”; Bian Cheng, “A Graduate Student and Children Orphaned by AIDS,” Chinese Society for Human Rights [online], (retrieved May 20, 2005); “Defenders of the Right to Health: Li Dan,” Amnesty International, [online] (retrieved May 20, 2005).

[6] Chen Ying, “Just a misunderstanding? Private school for AIDS orphans is shut down by the local government,” Beijing Today, March 26, 2004.

[7] Tan, “China shuts school.”

[8] According to another account, the officials and police officers were not in uniform and did not show proof of their identities. E-mail message from Wang, Chinese AIDS activist, to Human Rights Watch, 2005. To protect their security, all names of those interviewed in China have been changed, and details of the dates and locations of the interviews have been omitted.

[9] E-mail message from Zeng, former Dongzhen volunteer to Human Rights Watch, July 14, 2004.

[10] E-mail message from Zeng to Human Rights Watch, July 14, 2004. Another account of the Orchid crackdown by an orphanage volunteer confirmed most of these details and also reported that four of the police officers were armed. Posted July 15, 2004,

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